Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Honoring Thelma

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The land of the midnight sun where the sun doesn’t set until past midnight was the perfect setting for the “25th anniversary” and 12th Biennial Conference of the Filipino American National Historical Society (Fanhs) held at the Anchorage Hilton Hotel from July 3-5, 2008. Only a city with that many daylight hours could accommodate more than 300 delegates from all over the United States attending 28 separate concurrent workshops and three plenary sessions.

“The Lure of the Salmon Song” was the theme of the conference referring to the tens of thousands of Filipino “Alaskeros” who worked in the Alaskan canneries since 1915. In 1930 alone, there were 4,200 Filipino cannery workers in Alaska. Their numbers swelled to 9,000 a decade later but by 1976, there were down to just 1,200. Their numbers are insignificant now.

A highlight of the conference was the Friday morning plenary session on the “Alaskero Experience” with former Alaskeros recollecting their time at the canneries. Dr. Alan Bergano, a dentist in Virginia Beach, West Virginia, was a student at the University of Washington when he and his girlfriend (now his wife), Edwina Lapa, worked several summers in Alaska to pay for their college education.

Also sharing their mostly bitter experiences were Larry Flores of Seattle, Oscar Penaranda from Union City, California, Ray Guimary from Portland, Ray Pascua from Yakima, Washington and Jesse Tabasa from Aptos, California. They spoke of working 16 to 23 hour days standing on their feet as they sorted tens of thousands of salmon, eating nothing but rice and salmon for breakfast, lunch and dinner and living in crowded segregated bunk huts.

Anthony Ogilvie, Dean of Continuing and Professional Education at Seattle Central Community College and chair of the historic 1971 Young Filipino People’s Far West Convention held in Seattle, explained how segregation at the canneries worked. Because he was mistaken for being “white”, the cannery bosses gave him the easy job of doing mail call, where he spent most of his “working” days just sleeping in more comfortable quarters and getting paid far more than his brown-skinned brothers. (Yes, he felt guilty about it).

The Fanhs Conference was dedicated to the memory of Thelma Garcia Buchholdt, the former three-term national Fanhs president who initiated the holding of the Fanhs national conference in her home state of Alaska. Unfortunately, Thelma did not live to see the fruition of her efforts as she died of pancreatic cancer on November 5, 2007.

Thelma Garcia immigrated to the U.S. in 1951 and was enrolled in graduate studies at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas in 1956 when she met fellow student Jon Buchholdt. After they married in 1957, Thelma and Jon Buchholdt, and their four kids, moved from Los Angeles to Anchorage in 1965 where Thelma immersed herself in the local community. In 1974, Thelma was elected to the Alaska State Legislature from a mostly-white assembly district, becoming the first Filipino American woman elected to public office in the United States. In 1980, Thelma was elected the first Asian American president of the National Order of Women Legislators.

When their eldest daughter, Titania, enrolled at the Georgetown University School of Law in 1991, Thelma and her husband, Jon, joined her in Washington D.C. and enrolled at the District of Columbia School of Law. Father, mother and daughter all took and passed the Alaska bar.

In 1996, Thelma published her landmark book “Filipinos in Alaska: 1788-1958” (Aboriginal Press) which provides detailed information about the first recorded Filipinos to set foot in Alaska. Her research established that a British ship, the Iphigenia Nubiana, under the command of Capt. William Douglas, left Zamboanga on February 2, 1788 and landed in the Cook Inlet in Alaska on June 17, 1788 with a “Manilla Man” as part of the crew.

In that same year, Capt. Simon Metcalfe, an American fur trader, brought his ship Eleanora to “Manilla” for repairs and hired 30 “Manilla Men” to be part of his crew. Five of his “Manilla Men” were assigned to the other Metcalfe-owned ship, Fair American, in China. Both ships then sailed to Alaska where they landed with their “Manilla Men” crew in the summer of 1789.
When Thelma died in November of 2007, the state’s governor ordered all flags in the state to be flown at half-mast to honor Thelma Buchholdt and her contributions to Alaska.

On the last day of the conference, Dr. Joan May Timtiman Cordova, a Drexel University professor in Philadelphia, with a doctorate from Harvard University, was elected Fanhs national president. Elected as national vice-president was Evangeline Canonizado Buell from Berkeley, California, author of Twenty Five Chickens and a Pig for a Bride: Growing Up in a Filipino Immigrant Family. Elected Secretary is Ron Buenaventura from San Diego, California.

While Fanhs was incorporated in Washington State in 1985, it is celebrating its 25th anniversary because it traces its beginnings to the publication of Fred Cordova’s landmark 1983 book, Filipinos, Forgotten Asian Americans (edited by Dorothy Laigo Cordova). If the U.S. can celebrate the birth of its independence in 1776, instead of 1789 when the U.S. government was first established, then why can’t Fanhs do the same?

The next Fanhs national conference will be held in Seattle in July of 2010. Be there or be square. For more information, log on to www.FANHS-national.org.

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